(Volume 25, Issue 2, April 2019)
During the formative days of the Reformation, when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli were at the height of their influence, they came together to discuss some of the theological differences that had surfaced between the various leaders of the movement. As they sat down to hammer out these matters they would check off doctrine after doctrine in which they were in basic accord. The two men were in agreement concerning salvation by God’s grace through faith alone, that the Scriptures were the only authoritative revelation from God, and the issues of eternal life. As a matter of fact, they could join hands over virtually all the essential beliefs – what have been termed the non-negotiables of the faith. The discussion came down to one final issue that of the Lord’s Table. Zwingli went first, laying out a very detailed formation of his understanding of this particular doctrine. In the meanwhile Luther sat at the other end of the table in silence, seemingly doodling on the table. When Zwingli was done, Luther pulled back the tablecloth to reveal a simple statement which he had written. It simply read, “This is My body.” In Luther’s mind, this quote from Jesus disproved everything Zwingli had said. As a result, the Reformation was splintered.
Over what did these two Reformation giants disagree? They certainly did not clash over the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Nor did they dispute its basic meaning or symbolism. The debate had to do with the composition of the elements and what actually happened at the Table itself. To many believers today this is a non-issue. In an age of pragmatism, in which most Christians are far more concerned about their own felt-needs than they are about doctrinal matters, such arguments seem inappropriate and unnecessary. Many today approach the Lord’s Supper in a nonchalant, even profane manner. Others see the Table as a quaint ritual stemming from the ancient past that may not be seeker-friendly but must nevertheless be endured. Still others place saving power in partaking of the elements. Just how should the child of God understand the Lord’s Supper—what does Scripture teach? This is the question which we would like to explore in the following pages.
Practically all Protestants agree that the Lord gave His church two ordinances (some call them sacraments) to observe until He returns: baptism and communion. Virtually every branch of the practicing church today, from rank liberal to ultra-conservative, practice some form of the Lord’s Table, which is not to say that everyone agrees on every detail. There are differences of opinion, for example, over what it means, how the celebration should be conducted, the frequency in which it should be offered, and what it should be called. As might be expected, with this much disagreement there have been numerous debates throughout church history regarding these issues and more.
During the Reformation era, there were actually four prominent views, views that are still found today. Not only did Luther and Zwingli have a distinct understanding of the Supper, but Calvin disagreed with both of them. Of course all of the Reformers differed with Roman Catholicism’s sacramental concept of the Eucharist. These disagreements were hotly debated in the sixteenth century and even today the battles go on.
The Passover – Preview of What Was to Come
Before we look into these differences and try to unravel them a bit, it would first be best to turn to the Scriptures and let them speak for themselves. We will start with the book of Luke, which not only chronicles the first Lord’s Supper but also gives us great insight into its purpose and meaning. As the scene develops Jesus is actually preparing to eat the Passover with His disciples (Luke 22:14-16). When the hour had come, Jesus reclined at the table with the apostles and informed them that He earnestly wanted to eat this Passover with them “for I say to you I will never again eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This, in essence, was the last legitimate celebration of the Passover in history. This is not to say that Jewish people since and even today are not continuing to participate in the Passover ceremony, but this was the last one as far as God is concerned because all the symbolism of the Passover would be fulfilled and completed in Christ the next day.
The Passover was a celebration initiated by God to point simultaneously in two directions. First, it drew the Jews’ attention to the past and reminded them of God’s provision at the time of the Exodus. You will recall, God sent Moses to free the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. When Pharaoh refused to let the people go God sent a series of judgments upon the Egyptians, the last of which would be known as the Passover plague. Moses warned the people that the Lord would pass over the land that night and the firstborn of every household would die. But Moses also instructed them, that if any would slay a lamb, taking the blood of that lamb and putting it on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, when the Lord passed over none of their firstborn would die, neither of their children nor their livestock. That evening the Egyptian people suffered great loss but to our knowledge all the Jewish people obeyed God and suffered none. The physical lives of the people were spared because they had sacrificed a lamb and placed its blood on the doorposts and lentils of their homes. Each year from that point on, the people were to participate in the Passover as a commemoration for what God had done on that night – sparing their first-born and releasing them from the bondage of Egypt (see Exodus 11-12).
Second, the Passover also looked to the future when Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God, would die as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. At the cross, the blood of the Son of God would be shed in order that those who place their faith in Him might have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. In the Upper Room Jesus sat down with His apostles to partake in the traditional Passover celebration, but this night was unique.
Jesus tells His disciples in Luke 22:15, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” That is, Jesus wanted to have this last Passover meal with His disciples before the time of the crucifixion. At the crucifixion, all of the symbolism of the Passover would be fulfilled in Christ. The lamb, having died for the people at the Exodus, pointed to the time when the Lamb of God would die in our place, shedding His blood for us so that we might be saved. As Jesus participates in this last Passover meal with His disciples, little do they know that Jesus was about to initiate the first Lord’s Supper.
Jesus makes an interesting statement in Luke 22:16, “I will never again eat it [the Passover] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Even as Jesus anticipates the fulfillment of the Passover’s symbolism at the cross, He points to a time when there would be another Passover celebration in the Kingdom. The Passover therefore still has a future in God’s kingdom, but in the meanwhile, during the church age, it is the Lord’s Supper which demands center stage as the ordinance which symbolizes our faith.
The Lord’s Supper Given
While the Passover is definitely linked with the Lord’s Supper they are obviously distinct celebrations. Still the last Passover leads to the first Lord’s Supper. Luke 22:17-20 reads,
And when he had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way, He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
It should be mentioned this is not the “Last Supper.” Leonardo da Vinci provided us with a classic painting entitled “The Last Supper” and it is common to refer to this event by that name, but such is never the case in the New Testament. It is, in fact, the last time Jesus eats a meal with the disciples but it is the initiation of the Lord’s Supper. There are actually a number of different names given this meal in the New Testament:
- The Breaking of Bread. Based on Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7 some refer to the Lord’s Table as the “Breaking of Bread” ceremony. Acts 2:42 reads, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” When the early church gathered they would often come together to enjoy a potluck meal. In ancient times this meal was known as a love, or agape feast. However, these feasts or potlucks were always connected with the Lord’s Table, that is, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was included in the agape feasts. And so when these passages speak of the breaking of bread they were referring to more than a shared meal. They are speaking of the Lord’s Table. As they came together, they broke bread, meaning they participated in the Supper together.
- The Table of the Lord. First Corinthians is the only epistle that deals in any detail whatsoever with the Lord’s Supper and it does so several times. In Chapter 10, verse 21, Paul calls the Supper the “table of the Lord.” In this particular passage, Paul is referencing the Table in the context of correction, as he warns the Corinthians that they cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. They cannot partake in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. He was very concerned about the separation, the holiness that needed to take place among these Corinthians who seemed to want to bring all the baggage of their sinful past into the church. Paul was constantly trying to show them the error of their way, and one of the things that needed correcting had to do with the Table of the Lord. The Corinthians participated at the Table when they gathered with other believers, but they also were going down to the temples of the idols, the demonic temples, and participating in certain aspects of the worship there. Incredibly, they didn’t seem to see a problem. Paul wanted to make it clear — there was a problem. Nevertheless, even with all their worldliness and compromise, these Corinthians knew the difference between the table of demons and the Table of the Lord.
- The Lord’s Supper. First Corinthians 11:20 reads, “Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Again, he is correcting them as the Corinthians were bringing some bad practices to the Table. As a matter of fact, as they came together for their agape feast, their potluck, they were doing so in selfishness. It would appear that the wealthier people were arriving early, no doubt bringing the best of the food and drinks to the dinner. They would then consume most of this food leaving little for the poorer believers who arrived later after work. In addition, some of the people were actually getting drunk at the Lord’s Table. Paul is rightly angry with this church and corrects them for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
- Communion. First Corinthians 10:16 says, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” The word “sharing” here is a common Greek word, koinonia. It means fellowship or participation or communion. As Paul talks about the elements he speaks of them as a koinonia or communion with others in the body of Christ, with the idea that we partake together. As the church gathers into a community they commune, or fellowship, by participation at the Table.
- Eucharist. This is one final term or word that is often used for the Lord’s Supper. From the lips of Jesus, we hear, “And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves’ (Luke 22:17). Jesus uses the word eucharist which is Greek for the English word “thanks” in our text. The Eucharist is the title most often used by the Roman Catholic Church and other Orthodox-type churches for the Lord’s Supper, and while there is nothing wrong in using this title, it is seldom adopted by the evangelical community. The word simply means to give thanks. As believers come together around the Table they do in fact give thanks.
So Breaking of Bread, the Table of the Lord, the Lord’s Supper, Communion and Eucharist all are terms found in Scripture for the same ordinance. None of those terms is used a great deal in Scripture, and there is no mandate in the New Testament to call this meal by a particular name. Nevertheless, all of these titles are legitimate and each adds a dimension to our understanding of the ordinance.
The Purpose of the Lord’s Supper
What is the purpose of the Supper? What did Jesus do? Why did He do it? What does it symbolize? These are important questions. In order to get a handle on them, we need to return to Luke 22:17 and pick up the story with the first Passover cup that Jesus shares with His disciples in the upper room. Here Jesus takes the cup, gives thanks and instructs the apostles to share the cup with each other. This first cup is interesting because it is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. It is not found in the accounts of Matthew, Mark or John (who virtually ignores the Supper), and it is not mentioned in the epistles. Only in Luke do we find any reference to this first cup. It is not part of the communion celebration practiced by Christians in the New Testament as Paul outlines in First Corinthians 11, nor is it part of the communion celebration as practiced by Christians since that time. Nevertheless, if Jewish tradition serves us well, it is instructive to know that there were four cups at the Passover celebration. The first cup has no direct significance to the Lord’s Table, and neither does the final cup. It is most likely the third cup (although some believe the second) that has found its way into the communion service of the church.
All four cups were common cups—that is, all participants drank from the same cup. The common cup is something seldom practiced today due to our concern for hygiene, but in New Testament times believers used common cups when they came to the Table to signify something of value—that we are one in Christ. As there is one cup so there is one community of believers. All of us who are in Christ, regardless of our personal or doctrinal differences, are part of that community. When we come together as local expressions of the body of Christ, we share the cup, which is symbolic of our oneness in Christ.
Jesus was going away and, in His absence, His followers would desperately need one another. For that purpose, our Lord would baptize the believers by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, the church (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12:13). Christ would be the cornerstone of that body, a stone the apostles would lay (Eph. 2:20). Ephesians 4:3 is clear that there is only one body, therefore, when we share in the communion, we are commemorating the fact that there is but one body of Christ. We come together not just as individuals but as the members of one body who are sharing, in communion with one another, the thing that is central to us—Jesus Christ. Around Him and His saving work we commune and fellowship. As believers, we have Christ and our commitment to Him in common. In any local church, there are all sorts of opinions, gifts, preferences, and enormous variety created by God’s design. But as we come to the Table we come to celebrate our commonality in Christ. When we come to the Table we do not come together merely as individuals—we come as a body and we partake as one body of the common cup.
Luke 22:19 moves to the element of the bread. “And when he had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them saying: this is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” The bread used at the Passover celebration was unleavened and therefore flat wafers. In the Passover celebration, the unleavened bread symbolized the purity that was to be Israel’s. Just as the bread had not been “contaminated” by leaven so the people were to separate themselves from the sins of the people, both those of the Egyptians who they were leaving behind and those of the nations they would soon encounter in the Promised Land. But Jesus at this point gives the bread a completely new meaning. He tells His disciples that this bread was His body. He then breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples.
In trying to understand the significance of the bread we should first contemplate why Jesus broke it. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we ever told that Christ’s body was broken for us, even though we might at times carelessly use such terminology. As a matter of fact, we are told that while Jesus was crushed for our iniquities at the crucifixion (Isa. 53:5) none of His bones was broken (John 19:36). The symbolism of the broken bread has to do with Christ’s sacrificial giving of Himself for us, not in the sense of broken bones, but of a shattered body for us. The emphasis of the broken bread is that of Christ’s great bodily sacrifice on our behalf. The key phrase is “given for you,” meaning that it was a sacrificial offering. The Lord died for us. He gave Himself as a substitutionary offering. He died in our place. Had he not done so we could not be saved, for it would be necessary for us to pay for our own sins—something impossible for us to do.
By closely linking the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus indicates that something new is happening. He is making it clear that the central moment in all of human history is about to take place. The Passover celebration for 1400 years, from the time of Moses to the cross of Calvary, had pointed to Jesus Christ dying in our place. For almost 2000 years since, the communion service has pointed back to this same event. Why? What is the significance?
Romans 5:6-9 gives us the Divine commentary on this subject. In verse 6 we are informed of God’s motive, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Notice first our situation—our condition. Before the cross, we were helpless and ungodly. Paul goes on, “For one would hardly die for a righteous man; although perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In these verses, Paul uses a number of words to describe our hopeless condition in sin. He calls us “helpless,” “ungodly” and “sinners.” Further down in verse 10, Paul reports that in our unregenerate state we were also the very enemies of God. That is what we were as unbelievers. And yet, God demonstrated His own love toward us in that while we were still in that helpless, ungodly, sinful, adversarial condition, Jesus Christ died for us. What is the motivation behind the saving grace of God? Pure love—the purest expression of love that has ever been known, the death of Christ for undeserving sinners. This great loving sacrifice is beautifully symbolized in the bread “given for us.”
The cup, on the other hand, takes on further significance. In Luke 22:20, we read, “In the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” This probably was the third cup of the Passover celebration and at this point the Lord gives it new meaning, telling us that it is symbolic of His blood which is poured out for us. Unpacking this statement, we first find that it was necessary for Christ to shed His blood. It would not be sufficient for our Lord to die in a bloodless manner; the shedding of blood was necessary just as it had been with the Passover lamb. As Hebrews 10:22 informs us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” His blood was poured out for us. Matthew 26:28 adds this phrase, “Which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Although we often try to complicate it, the gospel message is very simple. Why did Christ die? He did not die for our happiness or our fulfillment, or so that we might find our purpose. The gospel message, as epitomized at the cross and commemorated at the communion service, is that Jesus Christ died for our sins.
What is our greatest need? Although few recognize it, our greatest need is that we lack the forgiveness of sin and the righteousness of God, and are thus alienated from the Lord. Further, there is absolutely nothing we can do to obtain forgiveness and righteousness. Try as we may, our righteousness is nothing more than filthy rags in the sight of God (Isa. 64:6). Nothing could satisfy our great need except the cross of Calvary and the blood of Jesus Christ. The hymn writer Augustus Toplady had it right when he penned these words found in “Rock of Ages:”
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demand;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone
The gospel message is that Jesus Christ died in our place and shed His blood for us. The cup commemorates this simple message. It is a constant reminder of our sinful condition and what Christ did to remedy that condition.
The New Covenant
The cup, however, has even further symbolism. Jesus says in relation to the cup, “This is a new covenant in my blood.” What is this new covenant? First, it is obviously something new—something that has never happened before. When we partake of the bread we remember the sacrificial death of Christ that brought us salvation. But when we partake of the cup we are not only to remember what Christ’s blood bought for us in the past on a cross, but also what His blood guarantees us in the present: a new covenant.
This is a difficult thing for us to understand mainly because we don’t ratify covenants or contracts the way the Hebrews did. When we ratify the contract to purchase a house or car we simply came up with the down payment and sign the contract. But ancient agreements were often ratified by the blood of an animal. An animal would be slain and divided and then both parties of the agreement would walk between the divided parts, thus ratifying the covenant. The shed blood of Christ ratified the “new” covenant with the world. Mankind can accept or reject God’s covenant but nevertheless God has put it into place.
What exactly is the New Covenant? It might be helpful to realize that another translation of this would be the “New Testament.” The Old Testament primarily records God’s dealings with Israel on the basis of the covenant given through Moses, while the New Testament describes the new arrangement of God with people through Christ.
The Old Covenant revealed the holiness of God in the righteous standard of the Law and promised a coming Redeemer; the New Testament, then, contains those writings that reveal the content of this New Covenant (see the Ryrie Study Bible, “Introduction to the New Testament”).
In First Corinthians 11:25 Paul adds something which is not found in any of the Gospel accounts. Speaking of the cup Paul notifies us that Jesus said, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” In the Gospels, these words are found in relationship to the bread but not the cup. This does not mean that Jesus did not use these words but that they were not recorded by the Gospel writers. God chose to later reveal this additional phrase through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the apostle Paul. Both elements at the Table emphasize the remembrance of what Christ has done for us. It is a time of memorial. As a time of remembrance of what He has done for us, the Supper becomes of utmost importance in the life of the believer.
In my home, I have a junk drawer; everyone has one I suppose. My junk drawer contains items which are of virtually no value, which is why they are junk. If I were no longer around I am sure most of these items would be very quickly trashed by my loved ones. So why do I keep this junk? After all, there is nothing in that drawer that matters to anybody but me. But I look in that drawer every once in a while and what do I see? Memories. There are things in that drawer that remind me of my youth—silly, useless, even stupid things that I don’t try to explain to anybody else. But they remind me of things I value. For example, I keep an old “45” record of my father’s even though I no longer have a record player. I found the record after my father died and it reminds me of something important to him, and because it was important to him it is important to me. When I look in that drawer, when I look at items like these, when I handle them, it brings back memories. They flood my mind. I remember things that meant something to me and still do.
The Communion service functions in the same way. Unlike my junk drawer, the Table is perhaps the highest and holiest moment of our worship of Christ. And yet, like my junk drawer, it serves a similar purpose; it causes us to remember. As we look at the communion elements and partake of them, memories should flood our minds and our hearts with the greatness of our Savior who died for sinners like us. Hallelujah! What a Savior.
A few years ago words were penned by Margaret Clarkson which spoke of the Communion service in light of the incarnation. Entitled “A Communion Hymn for Christmas” the words are well worth pondering.
Gathered ‘round Your table on this holy eve,
Viewing Beth-l’hem’s stable we rejoice and grieve.
Joy to see You lying in Your manger bed;
Weep to see You dying in our sinful stead.
Prince of Glory, gracing Heav’n ere time began,
Now for us embracing death as Son of Man.
By Your birth so lowly, by Your love so true,
By Your cross most holy, Lord, we worship You!
Bethl’hem’s Incarnation, Calv’ry’s bitter cross,
Wrought for us salvation by Your pain and loss.
Now we fall before You in this holy place;
Prostrate we adore you for Your gift of grace.
With profoundest wonder we Your body take
Laid in manger yonder, broken for our sake.
Hushed in adoration we approach the cup;
Bethl’hem’s pure oblation freely offered up.
Christmas Babe so tender, Lamb who bore our blame,
How shall sinners render praises due Your name?
Do Your own good pleasure in the lives we bring;
In Your ransomed treasure reign forever King!
“A Communion Hymn for Christmas” (text by Margaret Clarkson, music by Tom Fettke, copyright 1986 by Word Music).
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel